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EMF Studies

03 March 2017

Occupational Health Effects Linked to Terrestrial Trunked Radios (TETRA)

Occupational health effects linked to terrestrial trunked radios (TETRA)
by Jackie Cinnamondpersonneltoday.com,
2 March 2017

The use of terrestrial trunked radios (TETRAs) has raised concerns about health and sickness absence. Jackie Cinnamond looks at the evidence for a precautionary approach.

The British police and the other emergency services use a communication system involving technology called TETRA (terrestrial trunked radio), which is halfway between a mobile phone system and a walkie-talkie.

At one NHS trust during the autumn of 2013, it was noted that there seemed to be a correlation between increasing levels of sickness absence in ambulance staff and the recent introduction of TETRAs.

This assumed association was based upon clinical presentations of cases being seen in occupational health practice involving ambulance service employees, who maintain that their portable radio handsets are causing them to experience adverse health effects.



TETRA is the leading public safety radio communications system worldwide, and serves to enhance the function of almost 500,000 police, ambulance and firefighting employees (Airwave solutions, 2012; Motorola, 2007).

The Government commissioned TETRA in 2005 at a cost of £3 billion. It did so in response to concerns raised by the Police Federation regarding the use of a two-way radio communication system and its link with breast cancer in female operatives (Police Federation News, 2005).

The use of TETRAs was contentious due to similar health fears raised by the Health Protection Agency and its working group of 2001. Consequently, the Airwave Health Monitoring Study started in 2009 and the findings are due to be released in 2018 (Imperial College London, 2009). This long-term, observational study is investigating health outcomes of TETRA users within the police force.

Initial concerns were raised by Lancashire police after it was introduced, when almost 200 police officers began to experience symptoms of nausea, malaise, head pain, insomnia, skin complaints and two cases of oesophageal cancer (Farrell, 2002; Police Federation News, 2005).

Comparably, these symptoms correlate with reports of symptoms experienced by the ambulance employees within this trust, soon after the TETRA system was purchased, and which could be associated with electromagnetic radiation emitted by this technology.

Technical issues related to TETRAs

Radiation is a source of energy produced during atom separation. The process of ionisation results in the addition, or removal, of one or more electrons from an atom or molecule.

The force of the electromagnetic energy waves released during separation are categorised as either non-ionising, where the energy released is insufficient to ionise matter, or ionising radiation, where adequate energy is present to ionise matter (Tillman, 2007).

Ionising radiation is associated with the X-ray process; and non-ionising radiation is associated with the transmission and receipt of mobile telecommunication signals (IEGMP, 2000).

Electromagnetic fields are quantified by their wavelength, and the frequency at which the wave pulsates (Sanchez, 2006).

The wavelength frequencies are expressed in Hertz (Hz) and oscillate within a spectrum where one Hz is one oscillation per second, and one kiloHertz (kHz) is 1,000 Hz. Radios using 16-17Hz should be avoided as these frequencies are known to adversely affect health. TETRAs operate at a frequency of 17.6Hz

Potential implications for health

Mobile telecommunication devices are a cause of contention. The health effects associated with their use remain unproven (Kundi, 2009). Human stem cells are more susceptible to electromagnetic fields compared with differentiated human primary cells. The constraining influences of electromagnetic fields upon DNA regeneration in human stem cells could manifest itself in the development of abnormalities within the DNA replication process. Consequently, the initiation of cancer may result (Valberg et al, 2007).

With an estimated 500,000 emergency service employees currently using TETRA systems, if a causal relationship between the use of portable radio handsets and cancer development was subsequently established, then this could present a significant OH and public health challenge (Health Professionals Council, 2011; Dhani, 2012).

Current research

The incessant proliferation of wireless telecommunications technology use has intensified public fears and generated international debate regarding the chances of cancer developing as a direct consequence of exposure to electromagnetic fields emitted from devices such as mobile phones (Kundi, 2009).

Research findings accumulated over the past decade suggest a causal relationship between electromagnetic exposure through the use of wireless telecommunication systems and cancer development (Levis et al, 2011). Conflictingly, current research results conclude that there is insufficient evidence, or none at all, to suggest that acceptable electromagnetic frequencies emitted through mobile phone use can cause adverse health conditions or cancer (Kundi, 2009).

However, the majority of current research studies are sponsored by the telecommunication industry and, therefore, findings tend to significantly underestimate cancer risk. The overall accumulation of research findings, regardless of study design imperfections and financial bias, leans towards the opinion that there is an increased likelihood of a causal relationship between mobile phone use and cancer (Kundi, 2009; Levis et al, 2011).

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